Any Given Sunday

by: Peter Bodo October 17, 2012

Yesterday, I looked at the 2012 WTA season, using the 2011 year-end Top 10—and what those rankings implied and how they changed this year—as a jumping off point. Now it’s time to do the same with the ATP, whose rankings seem somewhat more stable than those of its volatile counterpart.

But that’s what happens when you have three players who are capable of dominating the sport, each of whose great impediment to that utter dominion is the existence of the other two.

When you look it at that way (and you all know I’m talking about world No. 1 Roger Federer, No. 2 Novak Djokovic, and currently MIA No. 4 Rafael Nadal), you have to wonder: Does the tour really need a Big Four? No offense, Andy (Murray), but your sudden emergence as a legitimate peer of those three multiple Grand Slam title winners does tend to rather complicate what is already a rather complicated picture.

Let’s take that comparison with the WTA a little further here. Yesterday I wrote that Serena still dominates the WTA, even in absentia. It’s no mere coincidence that like Federer, her counterpart on the men’s tour, she’s on that notorious GOAT short list.

But while Serena has the WTA in a stranglehold, Federer must fight for his competitive life of a daily basis. Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray are just too good, too capable of proving the value of that maxim bred by the National Football League, “On any given Sunday. . . (anyone can beat anyone else).”

This extraordinary situation can’t be expected to last. After all, Federer is already 31. Each time he loses is a potential tipping point in the eyes of some of his anxious fans as well as his eager detractors. They wonder, “Is this it? Is this the beginning of the end of this glorious run?”

Funny, but that question over the past two or three years has taken on the semblance of Chicken Little’s famous cry, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

One day that sky will fall, but for the moment it just keeps getting a deeper and deeper blue. Despite the lively recent jockeying up in those top four spots, where the concept of “parity” is continually being refined and re-defined, the rest of the ATP hierarchy is nearly ironclad. The men’s game has produced precious few dazzling surprises, and no supernovas comparable to some of the surprise Slam title runs in the WTA.

Also, there’s been very little turnover or jockeying in the Top 10 below those top four positions. The only new entrants to the Top 10 this year (presently) are Juan Martin del Potro (now at No. 8) and Juan Monaco (No. 10). It seems almost symbolic that the men they displaced were in the exact same ranking positions now held by the new tenants—del Potro replaced No. 8 Fish, and at No. 10, Monaco is the new Nicolas Almagro.

And add this to the calculation: Fish is out partly because of injury, and his replacement, del Potro, is in because of an injury overcome (the Argentine has been ranked as high as No. 4). As for Almagro and Monaco, they are comparable clay experts. It makes you wonder, could the ATP Top 10 have changed any less?

All this might not be an entirely good thing, although the heated rivalries at the top of the game tend to distract us from contemplating that. The static nature of the rankings might lead you to wonder, “When will we have a significant change?”

Contemplate removing Serena Williams from the WTA rankings and you can justly envision the floodgates opening on all kinds of new developments. Take Federer out of the ATP mix and you can just as easily see nothing much different happening at all. I’m not sure anyone would predict a Grand Slam breakthrough for Tomas Berdych if only Federer were out of commission.

The men have had a remarkably consistent year, as ticking off the top stories demonstrates: Murray makes his much anticipated breakthrough, winning Olympic gold medal in singles and the U.S. Open; Nadal is upset in the second round of Wimbledon, and takes the rest of the year off (likely) to rest and rehabilitate his knees; Federer wins Wimbledon and recaptures the No. 1 ranking; Djokovic rallies and makes a push to strip Federer of the top ranking.

All these stories are about the Big Four. The biggest non-story in the ATP is David Ferrer, who’s played at such a consistently high if not always inspired level that he appears to have been awarded that No. 5 ranking for life. It’s almost like he scored the one thing that doesn’t exist in tennis: An entitlement.

Similarly, No. 6 Berdych, No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and No. 8 del Potro just can’t make the big statement that has always seemed within their ken. Del Potro did win the 2009 U.S. Open, but that was before a serious wrist injury forced him to hit the reset button. In at least one regard, del Potro just hasn’t been the same player; he’s played as if he’s forgotten that he belongs higher up, perhaps rounding out a Big Five. Can he really have blanked out the way he overwhelmed Federer (then near the peak of his powers) in that U.S. Open final? Perhaps, for no amount of reminding has convinced him.

The WTA year-end championships will give the restless women bunched in the shadow of Serena one last chance to take down the great lady of the game. Doing so would suggest that change truly may be in the offing. The most we can hope for out of the ATP World Tour Finals is a real-time battle for the year-end No. 1 ranking, between Federer and Djokovic.

The next best thing, I suppose, is for a win by Murray—a ladling of rich gravy onto an already protein-heavy year. But should any player outside the Big Four win in London, it will be an inconclusive triumph, bordering on anti-climax. Unlike Serena, Federer isn’t the only overwhelming and obvious obstacle to the ambitions of his rivals. Even a drastic decline in his fortunes would not have a seismic effect on the pecking order in the ATP.

That may help explain why Berdych, Tsonga, Ferrer and even del Potro appear to be treading water. The way the Big Four have played makes that opposite shore look very, very far away.

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